The bench feels dirty beneath his palms. Gritty, like sandpaper. When he curls his fingers over the edge and grips, splinters burrow into his skin.
He registers that this hurts, that this means poking and prodding with tweezers later, but the fact that he has no idea where he is or how he got here is, at the moment, a more immediate concern.
He blinks as his eyes begin to adjust to the dark and breathes slowly, in and out, in and out, willing his heart to stop pounding so hard as he looks down at his legs swinging through the blackness.
If he had rolled off while he was sleeping he could have broke something. Because he isn't on a bench at all. He is on a ledge that is just big enough for one nine-year old boy to fit comfortably with a stack of comic books and a flashlight.
And he had rolled off once.
He hadn't been able to play little league all summer...
He knows where he is.
The shed behind the house. His old hiding place.
He can just make out Momma's old bicycle hanging on the wall by little blocks of wood and he decides that that's how he must've gotten up here, by using the blocks as foot and hand holds. That's how he used to do it before Daddy stuck the ten-speed up there, trying to keep him from camping out on the ledge.
He carefully climbs down, grasping the blocks one at a time, trying to convince himself the ground really isn't as far away as he thinks, and jumps over a box of daddy's tools, their sharp edges gleaming dully like teeth in the dark.
He can tell it's late.
Way past dinner.
Momma and Daddy are probably worried sick. He's gonna get a scolding for sure, and his hands hurt.
He picks at the splinters as he nudges the door open with his shoulder and steps out into the backyard.
An owl hoots from the trees as he makes his way to the house. The grass is high and it swipes against his bare legs tickling and scratching and he walks faster feeling itchy, dirty from sleeping in the shed.
He stops at the bottom of the back-porch steps. The lights are off inside the house.
His stomach twists because that's weird. Because even if Daddy had gone looking for him Momma would have been sitting in the kitchen waiting to skin his hide when he finally came home.
He climbs up the steps and he opens the back door too afraid now to call out "Momma?" because the house is too still and he knows she's not going to answer.
He tiptoes through the empty kitchen and into the hallway. He picks up the phone there and very carefully dials Granny Jane's number so it will be right and almost cries out in relief when she picks it up on the second ring.
"Granny?" he whispers, "D'ya know where Momma and Daddy are? Ah just got home an' no one's he-"
"Who is this?" Her voice seems very loud in the quiet of the hallway and he flinches.
"It's me, Granny, it's Cody," He tries to be loud too, tries to be brave. "D'ya kno-"
"Now listen heah, if this is yo' idea of a joke it's not funny!" Granny Jane's voice is shaking with anger and he's never heard it like that before. She hangs up on him and he stares at the receiver shocked feeling sick, shaky like fever and running too long. He's about to dial again when he hears it - the click, click, clicking of claws on linoleum.
The house has never felt so big and scary and unfamiliar, but Duke is here and that makes him feel a little better. He hangs up the phone as the Great Dane's head pokes out of the kitchen and he says, "Hey Duke, where is ever'body? C'mere boy…"
Duke stares at him a moment before slowly slinking out into the hallway, head low, tail not waving all crazy like it usually does, but straight back, taut enough to rest a plate on. His ears are down flat on his head.
Duke's lips skim back over his teeth, a low growl crawling up from his belly.
"Boy?" he whispers and his dog lurches at him, the growl bursting into a snarling bark.
The impact of Duke's body barreling into his sends him flying against the stairs where he cracks his head against the railing and a black wave splashes across his vision. He blindly flings his hands up in front of his face trying to protect himself as the room spins, the teeth snap and scrape.
He claps his bloody hands around Duke's muzzle desperately trying to hold his snarling mouth shut and a stinging suddenly shoots straight up his arms and explodes in his brain, a flash of light behind his eyes, a surging in his skull.
His back arches, his neck stiffens, his fingers claw, frozen in front of his face. 5 seconds go by, maybe 10, maybe 100 before he collapses in a boneless heap and slides down the stairs, down to where Duke is lying, down to where Duke is not moving or breathing at all.
He scrambles whimpering up the steps to Momma and Daddy's bedroom. He crawls deep under their covers, rolls himself into a tight ball. He doesn't know what else to do, where else to go. Granny Jane hung up on him. She's mad at him. Duke is dead and he's all alone in his big scary house. He wants Momma. He wants Daddy. He wants this to stopstopstopstopstop...
He closes his eyes tight, he starts counting to one hundred his heart thumping so hard it echoes in his ears and he gives each beat a whispered number before falling asleep at ninety-six.
He wakes up an hour later and it's still dark, the house is still too quiet. All there is is his shallow breathing and the tick tock tick of the clock on the bedside table. He listens to it and stares at the ceiling, the covers he had hid under now twisted around his legs pinning him down leaving him open to the air, exposed. A sob rises in his chest and he sits up, starting as he catches his reflection in the dresser mirror.
A girl stares back at him.
A girl stares back at him and he knows her.
He remembers suddenly that that's where he was before he woke up in the shed. With her. At the tree by the river taking turns swinging on the rope. He remembers watching her white Sunday dress swirl around her tanned legs like melting whipped cream in a cup of hot chocolate. He remembers thinking she was sweet as that easy despite the act she put on. He remembers telling her so and expecting to get his butt kicked.
He remembers kissing her to make sure the beating would be worth it.
And then there's the darkness of the shed he doesn't remember going into.
He untangles himself from the sheets, crawls to the edge of the bed and the girl crawls towards him too. He reaches out, his fingers sliding along the cool glass and hers do too. He touches his own face and she touches hers. He opens his mouth, says her name, and she does it too. He steps away from the mirror, and she echoes him. She looks confused, she looks scared. She looks down at her ragged dress, dirty and torn and he feels it swish against his legs like streamers. He stares at his bare feet, clenches his fists in the skirt. His long hair brushes against his cheek, and it's not blonde. It's shoulder length, matted and brown.
She looks at the room, at the rumpled bed, the ceiling fan turning a lazy circle, the dresser with bottles of flowery smelling lotions and perfumes, the brush with gold strands tangled in the bristles.
She doesn't know...
How did she get here?
She leaves the bedroom, wanders down the hallway and into the next room hoping to recognize something, hoping it will be a place she should be.
Toy planes hang from the ceiling by strings. There's a bookshelf with trophies and ribbons in blue and red and white. There are clothes on the floor, a bookbag, a baseball mitt, comic books and markers.
This isn't her room.
This is a boy's room.
She's not supposed to be here at all.
A car door slams outside.
She runs out into the hall and stops, her eyes catching on the portraits hanging on the wall.
Momma, Daddy, Baby.
She watches the boy get bigger and bigger in the photographs until she recognizes him.
That boy from school who's always looking at her, always asking her questions, always following her around. She saw him today. They met up after church and went to the river. He-
The door downstairs opens. She hears a gasp and goes to the top of the steps. She looks down and there's a woman there touching a dog that's lying so still it must be dead.
There's a man there too and he's staring at her. "Hey!" he says again. "Yoah that girl, that girl mah boy ran off with… whatcha doin' here… what happened to ya… Ya bleedin', girl…" He comes up the stairs, his hands out and reaching for her and suddenly she remembers. She remembers Cody reaching for her. Cody pressing his lips against hers and the bad thing happening.
The man looks like him. Even in the darkness she can see his sandy hair flopping over his forehead like Cody's does, his wide blue eyes... His fingers brush against the tattered sleeve of her best dress. Cody did this too right before he kissed her, right before she-
"Don't touch me!" she screams and jerks herself away from Cody's daddy because she thinks she killed the dog, she thinks she killed Cody and she thinks she knows how she did it.